Australian Broadcasting Corporation - ABC [Sydney, Australia]
July 27, 2021
By Matt Neal
The first in a series of civil cases seeking compensation for abuse survivors and victims of a now-deceased paedophile priest is expected to begin in the Supreme Court on Monday.
Bryan Coffey was found guilty in 1999 of 14 charges relating to indecent assaults on seven boys and one girl that took place across four Victorian parishes between 1960 and 1975.
The complainants are seeking compensation for loss of income, pain and suffering, and medical expenses, and include children who were allegedly abused by Coffey in the south-west Victorian towns of Port Fairy, Terang and Yambuk, as well as Ouyen in the Mallee.
The list of named defendants on the Court documents includes Bishop Paul Bernard Bird as the nominated defendant of the Catholic Diocese of Ballarat, the Trustees of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, Mercy Support Limited, the Trustees of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, and the Sisters of the Good Samaritans of the Order of Saint Benedict.
A judge-only trial will start on Monday involving the first of the matters, with further cases listed in August and September.
Coffey, who died in 2013, pleaded not guilty to all charges in 1999 but received a three-year suspended sentence.
The director of public prosecutions appealed the leniency of the sentence at the time, but the appeal was rejected with the Court of Appeal judges saying that “the offences themselves were not the worst examples of the crimes” and that Coffey had led a “blameless life” since 1975.
Coffey, who was born in Ballarat and ordained as a priest in the Ballarat Diocese, was moved to 10 different parishes between 1960 and his sentencing in 1999.
According to the Broken Rites website, Coffey was charged with more serious charges on at least two other occasions relating to alleged incidents after 1975, although those charges were eventually dropped.
The ABC understands at least one of the pending cases relates to an abuse victim, now deceased, whose charges were among those dropped. Their civil case is being pursued by family members.
Six civil cases seeking compensation are listed over the next seven months, with two more confirmed cases yet to be listed.
The ABC is aware of at least three other cases featuring survivors allegedly abused by Coffey that are expected to start soon.
Lawyer Judy Courtin, who represents victims of institutional abuse, said that in Victoria the removal of the statute of limitations in 2015 and the so-called Ellis defence in 2018 paved the way for “an onslaught” of civil cases involving abuse survivors seeking compensation from institutions such as the Catholic Church.
“[Before that] the only option really was for a survivor or victim to go back to the offending institution cap in hand and they were thrown a few peanuts — and we’re talking $20,000–$30,000 — but the problem with those peanuts was they had to sign something called a ‘deed of release’, which means they had to promise they’d never sue again,” Dr Courtin explained.
“As of about 12 months ago, I know there were at least 400 matters filed in the Supreme Court [seeking compensation].
“There has been what you might call an onslaught of cases being issued in the courts simply because finally survivors and victims now have what I call equal access to the courts to try and get justice.”
Dr Courtin said legislation was implemented in 2019 allowing ‘deeds of release’ to be set aside by the courts, paving the way for more survivors and victims to seek compensation.
She said very few of the civil compensation cases were reaching trial, with the majority of institutions fighting the matter for years but then settling just days before the trial was due to begin.
Dr Courtin said the inadequacies of the national redress scheme were also leading survivors and victims to pursue compensation in the courts.
Lawyer Viv Waller, who also specialises in abuse cases, said the floodgates had opened.
“Recent law reform has revolutionised access to justice for sexual assault survivors and levelled up the playing field for the first time in Victorian history,” Dr Waller said.
She said her law firm was currently acting in 576 claims for child sexual abuse.
These included 67 cases against Catholic priests, including two against Coffey, and 85 against Catholic organisations.
“We also represent a lot of former state wards in claims for abuse while in state care, and a large number of claims arising in school settings, both public and private,” Dr Waller said.